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Israel Science & Technology: NASA-Israel Collaboration

by Shira Schoenberg & Mitchell Bard

Shortly after its inception in 1983, the Israel Space Agency (ISA) has had a mutually-beneficial relationship with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The two agencies’ cooperative research efforts blossomed to the point where the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, launched into space on an American shuttle.

NASA and ISA officially began to work together in 1985, as the Institute of Petroleum Research and Geophysics in Israel was contracted to operate a NASA-furnished MOBLAS-2 mobile satellite laser ranging (SLR) station at the Bar-Giora Geophysical Satellite Observatory. This SLR tracked a complement of retroreflector satellites and provided data to measure tectonic plate and regional fault motion, polar motion and earth rotation. The project was renewed in 1990 and operated for another four years until it was discontinued due to budget constraints.

In 1986, NASA and ISA signed a general agreement to exchange existing scientific and technical information. The U.S. agreed to give Israel information such as NASA aerospace and technical reports while Israel, in turn, would give NASA scientific reports and working papers in areas such as aeronautics, astronautics, chemistry, engineering, mathematics and computer sciences.

Since 1992, NASA and the J. Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) have collaborated on the AERONET program, a study of the relation between atmospheric and surface properties in desert transition areas. NASA provides equipment, specifically sunphotometers and radiometers, to its Israeli counterpart and BGU scientists then monitor aerosol and surface spectral properties and conduct short experiments that relate these measurements to space observations. Aerosols are a type of pollution and AERONET is beneficial to scientists worldwide who are trying to develop ways to curb air pollution.

Also, in 1992, NASA launched the Space Shuttle Endeavor (STS-47) on which the flight hardware was built by Israel Aircraft Industries, Ltd. (IAI) with the support of ISA.

Early in 1996, NASA and ISA concluded an agreement for the provision of a permanent Global Positioning System (GPS) ground station, which would provide a critical reference point for measurements of motion over the Mediterranean and Middle East regions.

On October 2, 1996, NASA and ISA signed an umbrella agreement “for cooperation in the peaceful use of space.” The agreement says that NASA and ISA will work closely to develop cooperative programs of mutual interest in the use of space for research and practical applications.

Since 1997, NASA and the Israel Meteorological Service of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in conjunction with ISA, have cooperated on the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) Ground Validation Program. In this program, a satellite measures tropical rain and transmits the data to a ground validation system that ensures that the data is valid. A ground validation site is located at Hebrew University and a researcher from Hebrew University is a TRMM Science Team Member.

In 1998, two Israeli microgravity life science experiments were flown on the NASA Space Shuttle Columbia. The first experiment studied the early development of mice embryos in microgravity. The second investigated the growth of osteoblast cells in a microgravity environment.

In June 1999, NASA and ISA signed an agreement to share information through NASA’s Earth Observation System Data Information System (EOSDIS), making Israel the 10th country hooked up to the line. ISA established an EOSDIS node, to be maintained by the Inter-University Computation Center (IUCC) at Tel-Aviv University, that provides an interface between EOSDIS and ISA’s Earth science and environmental observation data and information system.

In July 1999, U.S. President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed to establish a committee made up of representatives of NASA and the ISA for the “development of practical applications in the peaceful use of space.”

In October 1999, Ben-Gurion University researchers joined an international project to map the earth sponsored by NASA, the German space agency DARA and the Italian Space Agency ASI.

In January 2003, former Israeli fighter-pilot Ilan Ramon became the first Israeli astronaut in space when he launched as part of the crew aboard the NASA Space Shuttle Columbia. During the flight, Ramon conducted a number of experiments including one designed to assess the efficacy of probiotic bacteria in strengthening the immune system, digestion, and calcium balance of astronauts in space. Another experiment, designed by scientists from the Israel Aerospace Medicine Institute in Jerusalem and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, investigated a theory that living organism are in meteors traveling between planets. Sadly, however, the shuttle exploded in the Earth’s atmosphere during its re-entry phase just minutes before scheduled landing - Ramon and the entire crew were instantly killed.

In January 2010, NASA and the ISA signed a joint declaration that made Israel a member of the NASA Center for Moon Research and promoted cooperation between the two agencies. The agreement also recognized the Israel Network for Lunar Science and Exploration (INLSE) and establishes the country as a part of an international effort to study the moon and the solar system. Talks stemming from the January declaration culminated in the August 2010 signing of a formal cooperation pact between NASA and ISA. The memorandum of understanding’s main stated intention is to expand the exchange of information and provide inspiration for the next generation of researchers, scientists and engineers. NASA, however, is particularly interested in Israeli expertise in producing lightweight satellites that can be launched from aircraft.

In May 2011, NASA’s final space shuttle mission included three Israeli experiments to examine the impact of space travel on human health among various studies and tests conducted on board. Material from two of the experiments returned to earth with Endeavor on June 1, 2011, while the third was left on the International Space Station to be retrieved by astronauts aboard the space shuttle Atlantis, on July 20, 2011. The material from the third experiment currently on the space station will gauge the effects of cosmic rays on telomeres, a part of cell chromosomes that regulate the life of the cell, and marks the first time an Israeli experiment has been sent to the International Space Station.

In November 2011, NASA launched its “Curiosity” rover to Mars that included an Israeli-manufactured refrigerator. Ricor Cryogenic and Vacuum Systems, based in the Israeli Kibbutz Ein Harod, specialize in cryogenic coolers, or “cryocoolers,” and their work ensured that parts of the rover remain at the necessary -173 degrees Celsius. In addition, to help develop the “Curiosity” rover and ensure that it could withstand the harsh elements of the Martian atmosphere, NASA used product lifecycle management (PLM) software developed by Siemens in Israel.

During the 2015 International Astronautical Conference (IAC), held in Jerusalem, the Israel Space Agency (ISA) and NASA announced a partnership, “in the exploration and research of space for the betterment of mankind and for peaceful use.” According to officials from both organizations, the partnership will focus on, “joint missions, personnel and scientific data exchanges, ground-based research facilities, space exploration and operations missions, joint workshops and meetings, scientific instruments onboard aircraft and spacecraft, sounding rocket and scientific balloon flights, space communications, educational outreach, and other spacecraft and space research platforms.”

Researchers from the Israeli Technion Institute of Technology were one of six groups chosen to participate in the NASA Explorer’s Program concept study in August 2017, beating out hundreds of competitors from around the globe. The Israeli research team aims to develop an instrument they call the Transient Astrophysics Observer, which will allow scientists to take measurements of electromagnetic blasts and gamma-ray bursts from outer space, as well as readings from neutron stars and black holes. If the proposal passes a feasibility test from NASA, the program will be funded and could be launched at the International Space Station by 2022.

Jim Bridenstine, President Trump’s pick to head NASA, arrived in Israel for his first visit on July 12, 2018. After Bridenstine’s meeting with Israeli Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis, a joint statement was released detailing an agreement to expand cooperation on multiple fronts including space exploration and science education. Israel is also hoping to send another astronaut into space. A few months later, NASA signed an agreement with the Israel Space Agency to cooperatively utilize the SpaceIL’s commercial lunar mission.

In March 2018, NASA announced it would use a radiation suit manufactured by Israeli company StemRad Ltd. in its upcoming Orion Exploration-Mission 1, scheduled for June 2020. A dummy wearing StemRad’s suit will be used to assess and compare the levels of radiation astronauts may be exposed to during a lunar mission.

Aseel Nama, a biomedical engineering student at the Technion, discovered two new asteroids that will be named for after participating in the International Astronomical Search Collaboration. The NASA-affiliated program invites the public to search for asteroids using astronomical data that it provides. Nama said, “I received from NASA a set of photos and video clips and I had to find new asteroids in them. I called my ‘team’ ANI (Aseel Nama Israel) and the asteroids that I discovered will be called ANI1801 and ANI2001.”

Eytan Stibbe, a former Israeli Air Force pilot and friend of Ilan Ramon, is self-funding a trip into space aboard SpaceX’s Axiom Mission 1 on April 8, 2022. This is the first time in history that private citizens will launch to the International Space Station (ISS) from U.S. soil. During their eight-day stay, the crew will conduct some science experiments and spend time with the astronauts on the ISS. Stibbe, just the second Israeli to go to space, is bringing with him a coin from the era of the Bar Kochba revolt, bearing the name of its leader, Shimon Bar Kochba

Sources: NASA.
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Asaf Shtull-Trauring. “Three Israeli experiments conducted on space shuttle Endeavor,” Haaretz, (June 13, 2011).
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Jonathan Zalman. “Israel, NASA announce space exploration partnership,” Tablet, (October 14, 2015).
Ilan Gattegno.  Israeli researchers to take part in groundbreaking NASA project, Israel Hayom, (August 14, 2017).
Asaf Ronel. NASA Chief in First Israel Visit to Expand Cooperation on Joint Space Projects, Haaretz, (July 12, 2018).
Abigail Klein Leichman, “Israeli spirits soar as Moon launch countdown begins,” Israel 21c, (February 18, 2019).
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Naama Barak, “NASA names asteroids after Israeli student who found them,” Israel21c, (April 13, 2021).
David Ian Klein, “Israeli astronaut Eytan Stibbe to take ancient Jewish coin into space,” Forward (August 19, 2021).
Jackie Wattles, “These are the four people launching on SpaceX's first ISS space tourism mission,” CNN Business, (April 7, 2022).